Uncomfortable Advocacy

The Philanthropist published the Moral Imperative for Policy Advocacy by Dr. Roger Gibbins of the Max Bell Foundation on February 16, 2016. This is the first of three articles on policy advocacy and it presents a cogent case on the obligation of charities to engage in political activities.

The second looks at alternative strategies for charities to become “full and effective partners in the development of the ‘new legislative framework’ referred to in the Minister of National Revenue’s mandate letter.” Taken alone, the Moral Imperative article presents a number of points related to political activities by charities for the purpose of framing some of the constructs needed in discussions with CRA.

That being said, the article’s description of policy advocacy is weighted toward service delivery organizations and representation advocacy (groups that attempt to speak for marginalized communities).

What is missing from the article is a discussion of advocacy that deals with broader concepts such as climate change, human rights, poverty reduction, women’s issues or social justice. These areas are not as discrete, accessible or measurable as direct service, but they play pivotal roles in Canadian society.

Broadly speaking, there are two types of political activity. In the first type, a charity makes a direct representation to legislatures, elected representatives or officials. This is regarded by CRA as a charitable activity. The second type is political action designed to “influence” the policy making process, especially through public campaigns. This activity is not charitable, but allowable under the 10% rule.

Direct service charities can find themselves undertaking both types of activity, but are seen as having a direct link in making representations before legislatures and others. Their presentations usually deal with describing the effect of changes to budgets or delivery models in terms of people affected or dollars allocated.

The advocacy of broader concepts does not usually have an identifiable service or clientele to represent. Instead, these policy areas are linked concepts such as citizenship or tied to other instruments such as an all-party Parliamentary resolution to reduce child poverty or the 2009 Copenhagen Accord on greenhouse gas emissions. By their very nature, these areas reflect government actions, or lack thereof, and policies.

Many times, those charities promoting the broader concept find themselves at odds with government. This was the case over the past decade when environmental groups found themselves reacting to the lack of action by the former Conservative government on climate change, environmental reviews and environmental standards; or when that same government’s financial and policy support of resource extraction industries was directly affecting the environment, human rights, aboriginal land claims, etc.

It can be argued that the major changes in federal policy after the election of the Conservative minority government in 2006 put some charities in direct conflict with federal policies, even though the charities had not changed their charitable mandate, purpose or activities. It is probably not a coincidence that some of these organizations were subject to CRA’s political activity audits.

This situation raised a dilemma for charities. They were okay if they supported government policy, decisions and laws, but they were offside if they questioned or opposed them.

Many questions ensue — Is pointing out the lack of movement on an issue a political activity? Is it a partisan activity? Is pointing out which MPs supported a poverty reduction strategy educational, or political or partisan? How are environmental groups allowed to fulfill their mandate addressing climate change? Will the depth and breadth of their activities put them offside?

It is these questions that will bedevil those who work to determine the sector’s position on advocacy. And it is these questions that the broader issue area groups in particular face on a regular basis.

Why is this an important issue? Some charities perform a role that reminds Canadians and governments of their responsibilities to others and to the world. These broader policy areas represent some core issues in Canadian society. How do we treat our prison population? When does economic growth start to degrade the environment? When is a Canadian a citizen and what are their rights and obligations? Is torture an acceptable policy?

Advocacy by charities is not a new issue. The Canadian Cancer Society found its anti-smoking message called in question during discussions leading toward the 1987 amendment to allow limited political activities by charities. The Society told Revenue Canada that they would continue their anti-smoking campaign. They said the campaign was about health and that the Society’s activities were educational and not political in nature. Revenue Canada, at the time, begged to differ, especially on the education argument. The Cancer Society did not pull back on its advocacy, but it knew it could be seen as offside. Because the Cancer Society stood its ground, we are a better society today.

Any discussion on advocacy by charities has to address the question of legitimate dissent. How do charities speak their truth to power when that power controls the charitable regulator? Under the last government, charities could only speak to a limited degree. Advocacy of broader concepts was met with rhetoric that linked some charities to criminal activity and regulation that was punitive.

Any discussion of a ‘new legislative framework’ has to embrace the idea that, unless the government is made uncomfortable by the advocacy of charities, it has failed to make charities “full and effective partners.”

The last words in this article go to former Conservative Senator Hugh Segal. “However one disagrees with the lawful opposing view, the right of the organization to espouse it should never be limited in a free society. That is not the Canadian way. It should not be limited by this chamber, by the other chamber, by any court or by any department of government.[1]



[1] Debates of the Senate (Hansard), 1st Session, 41st Parliament, Volume 148, Issue 78, Thursday, May 10, 2012,Involvement of Foreign Foundations in Canada’s Domestic Affairs – Debates continued, after 1440.


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